Ways to Make Sunshine - Renee Watson Author Interview and Review

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Ryan Hart loves to spend time with her friends, loves to invent recipies, and has a lot on her mind—school, self-image, and family. Her dad finally has a new job, but money is tight. That means changes like selling their second car and moving into a new (old) house. But Ryan is a girl who knows how to make sunshine out of setbacks. Because Ryan is all about trying to see the best. Even when things aren’t all she would wish for—her brother is infuriating, her parents don’t understand, when her recipies don’t turn out right, and when the unexpected occurs—she can find a way forward, with wit and plenty of sunshine.

My review: 

The whole time I was reading I kept thinking this was written to be the next great series that kids can relate to, and then I read that it’s Renee’s version of Ramona Quimby series and I couldn’t be more excited. It ended where I have so many questions, but I know that Ryan’a stories are just beginning.

There were so many amazing themes intertwined, the most of all being to love who you were born to be.

My favorite quote from the ARC: “How you wear your hair is your choice and no matter what you choose, it’s not going to determine if you’re beautiful or not. The only thing that will determine that is how you treat others.”

Ryan is learning how to live up to her name that means “leader” and along the way she encounters fear, worry, jealousy, and many emotions she can’t quite play out. She hears her dads voice telling her to be a leader and she learns to think before she acts - great lessons to share and discuss in the classroom.

As a teacher, I also marked several spots for notice and note signposts!

Can’t wait for more of the Hart family! 

Q: Can you describe your revision/editing process for students? Also, do you start writing on paper/computer/etc?
A: I always start my first drafts by handwriting in my journal. There’s something about pen to paper for me that makes me feel more connected to my characters. It also makes me slow down. Once I feel like there’s a story to tell, I move over to my computer and type out of the rest. A lot of times, when I’m stuck in the middle of a draft, I go back to handwriting and that usually helps to get me unstuck.

My revision process usually includes sharing drafts with trusted readers who will give me feedback. I ask them: What do you want more of? and What questions do you have? These questions help me go deeper when I go back to revise. When I’m in the final stages of revision, I use Post-It Notes and storyboard the major scenes in each chapter. I stick them to the wall in my office space and then I can see the full story. I take a different color of Post-Its and fill in the gaps, marking where new scenes need to be added. This helps me see where the story is going and where I need to add more. It also gives me a clear checklist for the next round of revising.
Q: What is the transition from YA to MG to chapter books like?
A: There are some challenges transitioning between YA, MG, and chapter books, especially when thinking about how children talk versus how teens talk. But mostly, it’s been really fun to write for a younger audience. There’s a curiosity that is so pure at this age. Imagination and play are still encouraged and so the characters in Some Places More Than Others and Ways to Make Sunshine experiment and explore in ways that look very different from my teen characters.  
Q: Tell us a little bit about your work with social justice education. How can I as a classroom teacher ensure that my work is valid and promising.
A: My work with social justice education explores how art can be a form of activism and resistance. I try to create spaces where young people are celebrating and critiquing their worlds, making art in response to injustice, and raising their voices. As educators, to ensure that our work is valid and promising, we need to make sure the curriculum is culturally relevant and diverse. Knowing the life skills our students will need to be successful citizens of the world, I believe it is important to provide learning opportunities where students can practice empathy, listening, cooperation, collaboration, and sharing. These can seem like simple words, but I believe they are vital attributes of an equitable society. Two resources I turn to time and time again are Rethinking Schools and Teaching Tolerance. They have so much to offer teachers of all subjects and grade levels.
Q: Future middle grade projects that you are currently working on? 
A: I am working on book two in the Ryan Hart series. I’m picking things up where Ways To Make Sunshine left off—Ryan has a new baby sister and that’s bringing a lot of change into her world. Some of it good, some of it not so good.
Q: What advice would you give to middle grade students who are writing?  
A: I encourage young writers to read, read, read. If there’s a book you love, read it again and figure out what the author did to make you love that book. How did they end the chapters? What made you want to keep turning the page? Whatever your answer is, try to emulate that in your own work.

I also think it’s important to be a good listener. Good writers pay attention to what’s going on around them, they are observers. To be a strong writer, I think you have to talk less and listen more.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions. We are huge fans of Some Places More Than Others and now I know for sure that Ways to Make Sunshine will be a favorite chapter book series. I appreciate the opportunity to read in advance and share with my students!

The Space Between Lost and Found: Review and Author Interview

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From the acclaimed author of Extraordinary Birds, a powerful story about family, friendship, and the light that can be found even in the darkest of places.
Cassie's always looked up to her mom, a vibrant woman bursting with grand ideas. Together they planned to check off every dream on their think-big bucket list, no matter how far the adventures took them. The future seemed unlimited.
But then came the diagnosis, and Mom started to lose her memories. Even the ones Cassie thought she'd never forget. Even Cassie's name.
Cassie tries her hardest to keep Mom happy . . . to focus on math lessons and come up with art ideas that used to burst off her pen. But as Mom's memories dimmed, so did Cassie's inspiration. She's even pushed away Bailey, the one friend who could help make things okay.
So, Cassie decides to take action. It's time for one last adventure… even if it means taking a big risk to get there.

Sandy Stark-McGinnis was born in California. Early childhood dreams: Play quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams or work as a forest ranger. Instead, she became a teacher, a job she found deeply fulfilling.
Currently, she teaches fifth grade, and is amazed and inspired by her students every day. She spends her time reading (of course), and traveling with her husband and two children. Sandy believes her thirteen years as a competitive swimmer trained her to have the discipline and perseverance to journey through a writing life. Her middle grade debut, EXTRAORDINARY BIRDS, was released by Bloomsbury on April 30, 2019.

Q: Hi! Welcome to Teachers Who Read!! We are so excited to host you. I love to always start with – What was your inspiration behind becoming a middle grade author?   
A: I had a writing mentor who told me she thought I had a great middle grade voice, so I took her advice and started writing Extraordinary Birds.
Q: What was your influence for The Space Between Lost and Found? I know your author’s note gives a little insight, but for those that haven’t read it yet can you give us any background information. 
A: My dad suffered from Alzheimer’s and I wanted to explore what that experience would look like through the eyes of an eleven, twelve-year-old.
Q: Can you describe your revision/editing process for students? Also, do you start writing on paper/computer/etc?
A: My process has changed. I would start writing a novel with a beginning and an end and just let myself write—which worked well because it allowed me to connect to voice. But now, I work from a synopsis before I begin writing my first draft. Even though I have an outline of where the story goes, I still give myself the space to find the voice of the character. Connecting to the voice of a character is important for me, not to mention it’s one of my favorite parts of writing. I used to write a full draft in long hand. Now, I write on the computer except when I’m stuck. When I’m not sure where to go, I go back to paper and pencil. It creates momentum for me.
Q: How do you manage teaching still AND writing such amazing stories? (Also this is my DREAM and I need some inspiration to get it going!)
A: Well, I was a pretty serious swimmer when I was younger and through high school. I used to get up at four o’clock in the morning to make practice, go to school, then after, practice again. When I started writing, it was somewhat easy for me to carve out a time and be consistent because I’d had the experience of dedicating myself to swimming.
Q: What is your favorite thing about teaching 5th grade?  
A: My favorite thing is my students! They are at the age where we have great, serious conversations. Every day I’m in awe of the insight they have and how much they take care of each other. They give me hope! And, they get my jokes!
Q: What advice would you give to middle grade students who are writing? 
A: I think the important thing is to write (and read), be open to the journey of learning about the craft and be willing to apply what you learn to your writing.  
Q: Future middle grade projects that you are currently working on? 
A: Well, right now I’m working on another contemporary, realist middle-grade that is somewhat based on a personal experience I had when I was younger.
Q: What were your favorite books as a kid, and what do you recommend to middle grade classrooms?   
A: I wasn’t a big reader when I was young. I didn’t come to love books until I was in college and fell in love with stories through movies. It was then I started to read books! There are so many great middle grade books out there, but some I’ve read recently and loved are Worse Than Weird by Jody J. Little, The Other Half of Happy by Rebecca Balcarcel, Quintessance by Jess Redman, and The Queen Bee and Me by Gillian McDunn.

You can also order her debut, Extraordinary Birds HERE! :) (and in paperback)
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IMWAYR: 4.20.20

Just as I was about to publish this post, Ohio teachers received word that our schools would remain closed for the remainder of the year. No surprise-yet still devastating. The unknown has been impacting my reading life. Books that are keeping my interest include ones about animals, ones with a lot of kissing, and stories featuring baking or game show competitions.  Does anyone have any recommendations for me? 


My Favorite Genre

Good Morning! I hope everyone is well and staying healthy. This has been a very hard and bittersweet time. I love having this new found time to explore and spend time with my family, but I truly miss my students. I have missed my home away from home: my classroom. It was my release from the hustle and bustle of home life. Well I can’t change any of that.

Another upside to having more time at home, is I have so much more time to read and this brings me to my post today. I have loved reading scary/horror stories since I was a kid. I grew up reading every single Goosebumps book published. I even had one that had three books in it and when you opened it it would scream. LOL can you imagine how mad my third grade teacher was when I brought that book to school. I can’t tell you how many looks she gave me and warning to take my book away. Lucky for me I was able to hook and unhook the screaming part of the book so while at school it didn’t disrupt the whole class unless I forgot before school to unhook the cover LOL. I even watched the show Goosebumps that would come on every Saturday Morning.I was in love and I still am.

I love reading scary stories to my students. I have found that some of them truly love them like me and some of them hate them but never want me to stop reading. I say it builds up their book tolerance and love too. Of course! Here are some books and authors I have been loving recently.

Full warning: you may want to read some of these books with the lights on or during the day. You would be amazed at what goes bump in the night. Especially when you’re reading a scary story.

After thinking about this post, as a teacher I could take this further and use it with my students. In fourth grade we write personal opinions. They learn how to develop an opinion about a topic they feel passion about and they support their opinion with personal experiences and stories. The best part is they really don’t have to research their topic. It all comes from what they think about the topic. Of course they have to prove why their opinion is true (so they can’t go too far off and make stuff up that isn’t true).

This personal opinion unit got me thinking of how I could combine reading and writing. I had my students write a personal opinion piece to convince their reader why their favorite genre was the best genre to read. 


Author Spotlight: Brigit Young

Release Date: April 14

In The Prettiest, my forthcoming middle grade novel, the dedication reads: For my mom, Brady. Back when I was in middle school you told me I should write about it. You were right.

You see, by seventh grade, the topic of sexual harassment at my school had turned into a weekly - if not nightly - rant over family dinner. 
The snapped bras. The endless lists, like “top ten best bodies” and “best chest.” The ratings from 1-10 on body, face, and personality. The absurd slur “slut” thrown around at girls who hadn’t even had their first kisses yet. The constant assessment of each and every body part. The grabbing. 
I knew it was wrong, and I regaled my family with tales of this injustice.
I remember my father asking me what the adults were doing.
"Nothing," I reported, which is certainly how it seemed to me, though in retrospect there may have been action behind the scenes. I never saw it.
My mother said she was going to speak to the school. I begged her not to, perhaps feeling hopeless after speaking to the counselor on my own and being told - literally, if you can believe it - "boys will be boys." As angry as I was, and as shocked as I often felt at the sudden degradation constantly thrown my way by kids who had only recently been recess playmates, I still didn’t want to be the girl who made a fuss.
After I’d turned down each and every solution suggested to me by my parents, my mom often said, "I think you should write about it.” She’d always seen me as a writer, even when I shrugged the descriptor off.
I don't remember how I responded. In all likelihood, I firmly declared that my mom could never understand.
But, of course, she did. Maybe things had changed in some ways from when she was younger, like the advent of the Internet, or the explosion of eating disorders in prepubescent girls, or the often-violent vocabulary in the music popular among 11-year-old Michiganders. But my mom knew about being treated poorly because she was a female. She knew what it was like to have her working class parents offer to spend any extra money they came across only on her brothers’ education. She knew how it to be turned away from a business meeting because it was taking place on a “men only” floor. She knew what it felt like to have both peers and men in positions of power hit on her in an environment in which she should have been respected professionally or academically. And school is, in essence, a middle school kid's place of work. So yes, she understood.
Now, years later, with two young daughters of my own, I've finally taken my mom's advice: I’ve written about it. 
My mother appreciated something then that it took me years of maturation to truly internalize: Even in the pages of a notebook, there is remarkable power in giving voice. And though I may be decades removed from the snapping and rating and grabbing in the hallways, the importance of giving voice to a past long gone still remains. 
In The Prettiest, three very different girls navigate the fallout after a list of the fifty “prettiest” girls in their eighth grade class circulates around the school. All three of them undergo various manifestations of bullying regarding their physical appearances and perceived worth. Many of their experiences mirror mine directly. As I worked on the novel, I contacted several friends and asked them about their memories of harassment in their middle school years. I found that not only did many women have similar stories to me, but the trauma of that time continued to linger in their lives. As the #MeToo movement unfolded, many of the women I spoke to expressed to me that their long history with sexual diminishment and gender discrimination began in earnest at age eleven or twelve. They recalled how those years, when puberty often marks a girl’s body in a much more public way than a boy’s and can entirely determine how the world treats you, signaled a turning point in their sense of self that saddened them to this day. 
I wish we’d all had a book that opened up that conversation between us then and not all the way into our thirties. Through the characters in The Prettiest, I was honored to be able to depict a bit of what occurred all those years ago amongst the bullies and bystanders and best friends of middle school, and I find comfort in the thought that somewhere out there a young girl may pick up my work and see her experience reflected in the pages before her. Hey, maybe she’ll even pick up a pen and write about it. 

I hope she makes a fuss. 


Distance Learning Book Clubs

Hi friends! I wanted to share with you how I am doing book clubs through distance learning. I gave students the option to choose from a list of Audiobooks that they all have available to them from their devices at home. Typically they would all have a physical copy, work is groups of 3-4, and we would meet and discuss daily, BUT given the circumstance it's all via an online platform. They could choose from the list which book to start their empathy book club study. Every two days they are to write a reading response answering certain questions. We are on WEEK 3, but WEEK 2 of the study, so I will add more questions as I pose them to the students throughout the weeks. They have three options to write their responses:
  • Hand write - take a picture and email it to me 
  • Write it in the body of an email
  • Write it on Notability or Google Doc and add to it daily and send to me

After they get finished, they are then to do an empathy one pager which I will attach the directions and the rubric to. On the BACK of the empathy one pager they have to write a PROPER summary of their story, without giving away any big information. (This is still so hard for my 5th grade babies) 

Here were the books they could choose from: 

Click here to view the sheets above. As I add in more they will appear! 

Here is the empathy one pager rubric and directions!

If you have any questions let me know!!!